The Gospel Coalition

 

Bradley G. Green, ed. Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians. Downers Grove: IVP, 2010. 398 pp. $30.00



In Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, Bradley G. Green compiles a collection of essays introducing students to theologians from the Patristic and Medieval eras. Green intends for this hortatory work to be an introduction to key figures, but also to teach theology students to “think theologically” (p. 13). He perceives an inherent need in supplementing the typical systematic theology lectures that can reduce a theologian or theological controversy to a bulleted list or simplified accounts. He acknowledges the balance between the sufficiency of Scripture in God’s self-revelation with the real actions of God in history that should include the epiphanies of theologians throughout history. For Green, this did not elevate historic theologians to a level of inerrancy, but it would hopefully reclaim their literature for evangelicals. Contributors not only introduce and explain the theology of certain theologians but also assess how evangelicals should be shaped by their respective theologians. While each of these essays are an excellent reflection of the Church Fathers, three stand out as representative of the whole: Irenaeus, Origen, and Anselm.



W. Brian Shelton begins by showing the relevance of the life and work of Irenaeus by discussing the contemporary conversation begun by popular authors like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and Dan Brown, who have each contributed to the notion of Gnosticism as a rival suitor of souls against “orthodox” Christianity (p. 17). Shelton provides a succinct biography and overview of the works of Irenaeus. He labels his discussion of Irenaeus’s view of Scripture and revelation as epistemology. His discussion places Irenaeus into a category comfortable for many evangelicals’ articulation of canonicity. For Shelton, Irenaeus had three categories of authority in establishing a rule of faith: apostolic tradition, Scripture, and catholicity (p. 29). These categories are similar to the common evangelical articulation that canonicity was based on orthodoxy, apostolicity, and catholicity. Shelton makes room for Irenaeus at the evangelical table without challenging the evangelical paradigm. Shelton also draws out commonalities between Irenaeus and dispensationalism by noting similarities in views on millennialism (pp. 48–50). Shelton does not, however, pass off Irenaeus as a modern evangelical, and he shows that Irenaeus’s view of atonement was much larger than a “legal solution to sin” (p. 46). While he does not catalog points of disagreement between Irenaeus and evangelicalism, he points out that Irenaeus’s view of the primacy of Rome and transubstantiation would cause difficulty for his holistic acceptance by evangelicals (pp. 53, 55).



Of the figures included in this work, none posed a stronger challenge than Bryan Litfin’s topic: Origen. Litfin contributes an easily accessible essay that presumes little background in church history. He opens with an eager tone to rehabilitate Origen for the modern Christian. His discussion on asceticism is refreshing as is his praise of Origen’s view of the magnitude of God. Litfin’s highest praise for Origen comes from his view that evangelicals should be challenged by a hermeneutic that moves past the “original setting” (p. 147). Litfin ultimately undoes his praise in his final section by stating that there are so many places where Origen gets his exegesis wrong that one must wonder why anyone would weed through the garbage to reclaim a few kernels of truth (p. 146). Litfin also falls into the trap of importing the modern emphasis of substitutionary atonement into his criticism of Origen (p. 148). Despite the early language of rehabilitation, the essay neither reveals the current state of scholarship on Origen nor challenges it. The heavy caveats Litfin closes with waves people in to be challenged by Origen, but not transformed by him.



In a similar manner, David Hogg writes that evangelicals might be challenged by Anselm. Hogg notes that Anselm’s life of reflection produced a “a manner and method by which he pursued truth” that was worthy of emulation (p. 332). Hogg identifies issues in Anselm’s writings that might give evangelicals reason to pause; however, he explains how Anselm should challenge evangelicalism while still being transformed by him. Hogg’s essay plucks Anselm out of the systematician’s rubric and places him back into historical context. Hogg plainly states that Anselm did not seek to speak exhaustively about all the themes involved in salvation, but to offer a corrective to the ransom theory of atonement that was rampant in his own age (p. 334). In explaining the challenge of Anselm’s prayers to saints, Hogg does not baptize the cult of saints into evangelicalism nor does he summarily dismiss Anselm on this point. Instead, he furthers the evangelical’s need to mirror the life of a monk whose prayers proclaimed the triumph of Christ over the shackles of sin and death.



The individual essays vary in explaining how each theologian fit with an evangelical setting. Some end with strong caution; others offer apologetic explanations for the differences. Each essay provides a balanced approach by allowing the subjects to speak through their own words. While this work is hardly a primary source reader, each contributor uses large sections of quotes from original sources to both draw out the theology of the texts and introduce the readers to the works themselves.



Green accomplishes his purpose in supplementing theology lectures for students who have yet to study church history. While it would have been impossible to include every major figure in the early church, one name seems absent from the work. Nicea and Constantinople were each represented with Athanasius and the Cappadocians. The inclusion of Cyril of Alexandria would have rounded out the volume by representing the Council of Chalcedon. Besides this one omission, Green and his contributors address a wonderful spectrum of theologians who are too often lost on the average evangelical church for being “too Orthodox” or “too Roman Catholic.” Even if readers are unmoved on a certain doctrinal point, each contributor masterfully articulates the pious lives of these theologians that reflected a commitment to Christ and scriptural reflection that both students and saints alike would do well to mirror.


John Lewis
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA



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